Bike messenger delivers bikes to Middle East refugee camp

Austin Horse helps assemble bikes he brought to the Azraq refugee camp.

Bike messenger delivers bikes to Middle East refugee camp

Next step: establish a non-profit to expand bike libraries

Photos courtesy of Austin Horse

Story by Keegan Stephan 

“Bringing bikes to Syrian refugees has been a dream of mine since shortly after a Daily Show taping on the refugee crisis there,” said Austin Horse, after returning from a month-long trip to the Middle East in November 2014. We were sitting at his kitchen table in Brooklyn, NY, and I wanted to know what motivated the world-renowned cycle messenger to bring bikes to kids in refugee camps in one of the most unstable places on the planet.

The consequences of the Syrian civil war have forced many to flee their homes and country. “There was nowhere in the region that was equipped to so rapidly house so many displaced people,” he continued. “ But Jordan quickly established a camp with the United Nation’s High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).  Zaatari came to house over 100,000 people.

Austin suspected that a refugee camp the size of a small town would not be able to prioritize transit. “The camp was bustling, but it lacked basic infrastructure,” he said, beginning to smile excitedly, as if he were planning a new, innovative bike race. “So it was the perfect place for bikes!”

*                      *                      *

There’s probably a cheesy inspirational quote I could insert here; something about how, if your dream is not impossible to achieve it’s not worth striving for. If there is a quote like that, it’s basically Austin’s life motto, except he probably wouldn’t see it that way. Austin has spent his adult life brainstorming ideas that are too off-the-wall or enormous for most people to imagine, let alone execute. He is able to not only ‘imagine the impossible’ but he is also capable of pouring all of his energy and resources into making these dreams a reality. And, if you know Austin, you know he has a seemingly endless reserve of energy and a truly odd conglomeration of resources from years of racing bikes, travelling, and making friends. This combination often leads to success, but never in the ways you would predict.

After attending The Daily Show taping, Austin developed a plan to bring bikes to Azraq, a Syrian refugee camp similar to Zaatari, but smaller and in an earlier stage of development, figuring it would make it a better place for a pilot program.

Austin emailed the UNHCR about his plan. He did not receive a response, so he started talking to everyone he knew that knew someone at the U.N. This tactic too yielded few results. At a massive, international organization like the U.N. there’s no clear path for citizens to bring ideas to help refugees – there are no prescribed steps to follow. Naturally, Austin began treading his own path.

He decided he would find other reasons to travel to the Middle East. He’d bring a bunch of bikes, and then figure out a way to get them into the hands of Syrian refugees. Yep, his original plan was: just get there, with the bikes, and figure it out from there.

As a professional athlete, Austin can get his expenses covered to travel to races while he promotes his sponsors. He’d helped a few messengers from Beirut fly to events in Stockholm with the air miles he’d accumulated, so he reached out to them to see if there was any good reason for him to get close to Jordan. He convinced his friend and fellow bike messenger Nico to shoot a video together in Beirut.

From there, he began searching for something - anything - in Jordan itself that would give him an added ‘in’. Austin is essentially an Encyclopedia of World Bike Races, but even he had never heard of any bike races in Jordan. He scoured the internet and ultimately found an obscure event page in a corner of Facebook that featured an unsanctioned, marathon-style 200-km bike race from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea in Aqaba. This may sound like an extreme event, but it is actually organized by a running group made up mostly of ex-pats who are focused on fitness.

They were a bit surprised when Austin contacted them and said he wanted to fly in for the race. They were even more surprised when they Googled his name and found out he’s a world-class athlete. But, ultimately, the arrangement worked out well for both the marathoners and Austin.

Now, Austin needed to secure bicycles, their transportation to Jordan, and storage until he could find a way to get the bikes into the refugee camp, for which he still had absolutely no plan.

Luckily, Brooklyn is still home to the oldest independent bike manufacturer in America. Worksman Cycles makes the perfect type of bicycle for the utilitarian applications that would be needed from bikes in a refugee camp. They are solid, reliable, low-maintenance, and as the name implies, real workhorses. As a bonus there are no tariffs on bikes made in the U.S. entering Jordan.

Austin purchased five adult Worksman bikes with his own money, and secured a donation of two kids bikes from local non-profit,Recycle-A-Bicycle. The next challenge was shipping - a challenge every cyclist attempting to travel with their bike has faced: Can I sneak it on the plane without getting charged the bicycle surcharge or is it worth paying the extra money for the convenience of shipping so I don’t have to lug it around, but then what if it gets delayed or lost?

In this case, Austin decided it would be best to check with the airline ahead of time. A representative on the phone told him it would only be $1,200 to bring them on the plane as baggage - far cheaper than shipping them - so his decision was made: he would take them to the airport and haul them across the Middle East himself. “I’ve never, ever volunteered the truth about what was in a bike box to an airline before,” said Austin, alluding to the inclination to attempt to conceal your bikes in the smallest box possible to save money on shipping, when travelling abroad. “But then, the night before the flight, I double checked online, and found out it was actually supposed to be $2,500. The rep on the phone had screwed up.”

“That was more than I could afford, but I decided to try negotiating in person. I showed up to the airport the next morning with eight bikes hoping for the best. To be honest if you walk up to a counter with 7 bike boxes they are not quite sure what to do. I told them I’d spoken to someone on the phone who’d quoted me $1200 and that the bikes were headed to refugees. The United staff was extremely positive and enthusiastic about my trip. They had no problem only charging me $1,200.”

Once Austin made it through customs, Red Bull (one of his main sponsors) took care of transporting and storing the bikes for the rest of the trip. “I had contacted them on Twitter,” he said, “Because in general social media teams are responsive and great at connecting. Bater and the rest of the team in Jordan picked me up, stored the bikes, and even drove a support vehicle for the race.”

Austin won the race. Of course, that wasn’t really why he was there, but impressing people with his athletic abilities has often led to other valuable connections, and it turned out that cyclists in Jordan, like in most of the world, are a well-connected bunch, especially in the non-profit and social justice realms.

People from many major NGOs that were operating in the refugee camp participated in the event. Austin chatted with all of them to figure out who would be best suited to introduce the bikes to the camp, and also maintain and utilize them after he left. He eventually decided onCARE, which was operated locally by a European guy who understood bike maintenance and shared Austin’s vision of establishing a larger bike library.

“Once CARE agreed to introduce the bikes into the camp, everything clicked into place,” he said. “CARE set up a work day, a couple dozen people showed up, we assembled the bikes together, and people were immediately riding them.”

“The response was overwhelming,” he said. “The kids bikes were key. The kids just jumped on the bikes and started riding them without any reservations about them being some hand-out that some foreigner said was going to be good for them - they just jumped on them and started riding them for the joy of riding.”

Austin explained how he felt seeing them experience the joy of riding bikes, something that was so basic yet so important to him: “Syrians completely understand the practicality of having bikes to run errands, especially in these refugee camps, where things are spread out. There is a central food distribution hub in each camp. People walk miles just to get their bread. Bikes can really help,” he said.

“Of course, a lot of women are now the heads of households, which means that there is much less stigma around women riding bikes, and the women I spoke to said they would have no reservations about using them – in fact, they’d be thrilled. As long as they were step-over frames, they’d ride them!”

“In Lebanon I met a Syrian refugee who was working for Deghri Messengers. He maintains a Facebook page for Syrian cyclists with nearly 100,000 likes! Many of the people still in the conflict zones like Damascus are finding bikes are the best way to get through checkpoints without long searches or theft. People are less suspicious of you when you’re on a bike, and less likely to give you trouble on a bike than a car.”

Austin is already planning to expand the project.

“I want to raise $100,000 to fill a container with 300 bikes, bring them over, and set up a bike library where people can check out bikes to use for transport, recreation, whatever.”

The library would need to be run by full-time staff of camp residents with proper resources so that the bikes did not get stolen, sold, and shipped off. Ration cards might be a good way to check them out, since no one would be willing to lose their access to food. And the staff would be trained in maintenance, he explained.

Of course there will be push back. The World Food Program raised the alarm about a funding shortfall in January, so the most pressing concern in the camp may be food, not bikes. “When you’re starving, bikes are just window-dressing,” Austin said.

But from our purview, we can see the payoff of implementing good bike infrastructure as the camp grows. “I’ve been fortunate enough to see New York and L.A. start to shift toward using bikes, and this trend is only going to grow. Urban planners are now planning with bikes in mind, so putting bikes in peoples hands, teaching them how to use and maintain them, and getting the city ready for their implementation - by establishing routes, best practices, and more - puts them way ahead of the curve for modern development.”

And so, he wants to establish his own non-profit organization.

“A non-profit that is independently funded can implement this project more easily. The goal of the organization would not be to establish and run one bike library in Azaq, or one in Zaatari, but instead its mandate would be to equip, train, and establish bike libraries in any crisis situation, like Doctors Without Borders. Refugee camps are one good example of where a bike library can do a lot of good immediately, and also help as a society rebuilds, but the same is true of a society in the wake of a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami, for example.”

“So I want to bank a bunch of containers full of bikes,” he said, “And train volunteers to be ready to jump in and train the locals to maintain the bikes and run the bike library.”

Austin said all this with the same resolve he had when he first shared the original idea for shipping eight bikes to Azraq. It’s a herculean idea, and one has to wonder how he’ll be able to make it a reality – but from what I know about Austin, I would bet on him to win any challenge, this one included.

More photos from the bike build day at the refugee camp below:






Related on the dandyBLOG:

Read our exclusive dandy interview with Austin Horse from 2013

Rita Leistner on biking in Kabul

 dandyARCHIVE: CMWC 2008 "Do not be an asshole"

The making of Line of Sight, with Lucas Brunelle

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